A St. Petersburg inventor takes his squirt gun system for bicycles and big dreams to the International Toy Fair.
By JEFF HARRINGTON
Published February 14, 2004
[Times photos: James Borchuck]
Inventor Tim Englert shows off a prototype of Water Wheels, a pump-operated squirt gun system attached to a bicycle.
The front guns on the Water Wheels squirt gun for bicycles can be aimed independently. The rider only needs to move a thumb lever to aim them.
ST. PETERSBURG - Inspiration struck Tim Englert when he spotted some kids outside a Tampa apartment building squirting each other with handheld water guns while riding their bikes.
What if, he thought, you mounted Super-Soaker-type water guns on the front and back of a bike and used pedal power to pump up the pressure required to shoot long distances?
Twelve years and roughly $300,000 later, Englert is holding one design patent and has another utility patent pending for Water Wheels: a thumb-operated squirt gun system that can be installed on a standard bike to propel water up to 50 feet.
The 43-year-old St. Petersburg structural engineer thinks he may have invented much more than a toy. He sees Water Wheels as the next extreme sport, a national fad - in short, a new, multibillion dollar industry.
In May, Englert quit his job inspecting and designing condominiums to work at his passion full time. He pushed a sofa and chairs out of the way in his living room to make room for a prototype display and tables overflowing with marketing material, including a cartoon promo produced by Tampa Digital Studios. The cartoon video portrays the adventures of the Water Wheels kids, neighborhood pals who ride around town with their mounted water cannons, saving the day by squirting a giant sand monster.
The inventor lined up a vendor in China that could put Water Wheels logos on everything from bike helmets and pads to squirt guns, towels and caps.
Someday, Englert envisions communities across the country erecting their own Water Wheels parks complete with ramps and targets for drive-by squirters to practice and compete. Then, perhaps, even video games and a movie based on his Water Wheels characters.
"Water Wheels will do for bikes, squirt guns and extreme sports what Peter Fonda and the film Easy Rider did for Harley Davidson and motorcycles," he predicts unabashedly.
But first, Englert has to do the sales job of his life this weekend.
It's time for the International Toy Fair in New York City, an annual event that can make or break many an inventor's dream.
Much of the publicity out of the fair focuses on industry bets for the next big hit of the holiday season. There are hundreds of wannabes for every Tickle Me Elmo.
This year, about 1,600 toy makers, large and small, are descending on Manhattan with their latest creations. More than 250 of them are in Englert's position - making their first appearance, anxious to crack the $21-billion toy industry.
"There's going to be a lot of people looking to bring their product to market, more so than last year. It's going to be a tough market," said Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist recruited by the Toy Industry Association to spot the hot new items at the fair.
Yet Englert may have a chance to break through the clutter.
Rice said she already spotted an ad for Water Wheels in a toy trade publication and jotted herself a note to stop by Englert's exhibit: Booth #5756, Level 1, inside the sprawling Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
"It caught my interest," Rice said. "This one jumped out as being different from some of the stuff out there."
From idea to creation
Englert has always loved to tinker and speculate about new products. But he was late to the game of inventing, joining the Tampa Bay Inventors Council about a year ago.
Divorced with custody of his 15-year-old daughter, Megan, Englert has had diverse engineering jobs over the years. At one company, he designed Middle East palaces. At another, he designed American wastewater treatment plants.
After relocating from Pittsburgh in 1985, he eventually settled in Edgemoor Estates in northeast St. Petersburg.
In his next-door neighbor, Brian Hadd, he found a friend, a sounding board and a business partner. A single father like Englert, Hadd became an investor and vice president of Water Wheels.
Hadd compared himself to Wilson, the next door neighbor who doled out sage advice over the fence to Tim Allen's character on the TV show Home Improvement.
Hadd said he was intrigued by Water Wheels from the start, but, "I got tired of hearing him talk about it and said, "Just do something about it.' You have to believe in the inventor, in someone who is going to quit their job and push it."
Englert soon learned that making his invention work was the least troublesome part of the journey.
He wasted money on one patent search company before hiring a more reputable law firm in Miami. An early supporter registered the waterwheels.com domain for himself, forcing Englert to use water-wheels.com as his Web site. Englert tried to market the Water Wheels concept but struggled to get noticed without industry connections and a working prototype of a squirt gun-equipped bike.
Unable to afford prototype quotes ranging as high as $75,000 in the United States, Englert arranged for a prototype to be built in China for $6,000. The model needs tweaking, but it demonstrates how a driver can aim the water guns with one thumb while firing with the other thumb. If pedaling builds up too much pressure between firings, the system is designed to bleed off water from the pump.
The expected retail cost: $30 to $40 for the basic kit; $20 to $30 for a storage container in the middle of the bike and $20 for an extra, rear tank reservoir.
Hadd's 12-year-old son, Calvin, is featured on company literature and is depicted as one of the neighborhood kids in the Water Wheels cartoon.
Hadd also helped recruit investors. Englert estimates he has put $250,000 of his own money into the decadelong project along with $50,000 to $70,000 more from outside investors.
Perhaps their toughest selling point is convincing investors the device is safe. In an era of dirt bike stunts, inline skates, skateboard parks and motorized scooters, Englert defends his creation as safer than most. Riders can keep their hands on the handlebars at all times while operating the squirt guns, he said.
"For the mothers thinking that this is not safe," he said, "their kid who is a couch potato is going to get out there and bike and exercise ... and have a blast with his buddies for hours."
Taking it to the masses
On Thursday, Englert loaded up his water bike, equipment, gear and promotional material in a Water Wheels-emblazoned trailer for the trek to New York.
His next step is probably the trickiest. Shunning a toy broker, Englert will pitch directly to toy companies for a licensing agreement, a manufacturing contract or perhaps to sell his company outright. One possibility is finding a bike manufacturer that wants to install the water guns on a bike line as an optional feature.
Rice, the toy trends specialist, wouldn't place odds on Englert's chance for success but she said having the patents and the passion is a big part of the formula.
"He's going to have the dream and the passion for it and that's what's going to propel this forward," she said. "Dream big and it can happen."